Based on how frequently I get questions about this from clients, I think one of the hardest things about transitioning to an unprocessed, Paleo-style diet is figuring out how to cook and shop again. Many of the go-to meals I grew up with aren't big P Paleo, or even small p paleo, yet those are the things I know how to make by memory. I grew up loving chili with beans, cornbread, pasta salad, lasagna, mac and cheese, homemade bread, anything wrapped in a flour tortilla, and many other dishes that no longer have a place in my gluten-free, dairy-light life. For a long time, once I transitioned to Paleo, and became convinced that my health and wellbeing was sufficiently improved to justify staying Paleo, I thought choosing better health meant never again enjoying food as much, ever, in any form.
Thankfully, I've adjusted to Paleo eating, and our cooking has improved and expanded to incorporate modified versions of many of the foods we used to love. Our palates have also adjusted, and we now can taste subtleties in real foods that we couldn't distinguish when we were accustomed to stronger, artificial flavors.
We've come up with a shopping strategy at the grocery store which enables us to have the right amount of fresh, unprocessed food on hand to replace the go-to's we grew up with as kids. We don't have pasta in stock any more, nor do we have many canned soups or frozen vegetables. We don't even have a flour or sugar canister on the counter. This means we need to be frequently buying fresh foods in the right quantities so we can fuel and recover from our workouts, without wasting produce that we purchased in excess. This strategy is mostly set, with some room for improvisation depending on what's in season, on sale, or available. It also varies a bit with our preferences, and can be easily adjusted to suit your preferences as well.
1. Take stock of our kitchen. First we check to see what's left from our prior trip to the store. This keeps us from buying more of the things we have enough of, and also helps us identify the things we bought last time, usually experimental items, which we're less likely to actually eat.
2. Plan how many meals, and for how many people. We generally shop in three day blocks, with the understanding we might end up stretching our rations to four days. We think over our schedule during this time, and assess who will be home for each meal to make sure everyone will be fed.
3. Meat/Protein. We usually start at the butcher's counter. We view protein as the base, and typically build our meals around the meat. For each meal, we multiply the people who will be eating it by the quantity of protein each person needs per meal. Our rough target (adapted from Precision Nutrition's methodology) if we're training hard, each of us needs two palm-sized portions of red meat per meal (for us, roughly 4 oz. per palm), or two palm+thumb sized portions of chicken or fish (roughly 6 oz. per palm+thumb). If we're not, we need only a single palm or palm+thumb portion, depending on the protein type. This means for the two of us when we're training hard, we need 1 pound of red meat, or 1 1/2 pounds of chicken or fish per meal. I know, it sounds like a lot to me too, but it enables us to get to our goal of just under 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight per day (as recommended for athletes by the ISSN), which supports muscle growth and maintenance when we're training. We also always have eggs in stock - 3 eggs each remains a favorite breakfast go-to in our house.
4. Carbs. We try to balance protein with dense sources of carbs in meals before or after exercise. For me, this usually means a banana (in the morning), or sweet potato or white rice during lunch and dinner. As a rough visual guide, we strive for about a cupped-palm portion of starchy carbs per meal on non-training days, and 2 cupped-palm portions per meal on training days. In practice, this means 1/2 cup of rice on non-training days, and a full cup on training days, or 1/4-1/2 of a sweet potato, again based on training. A piece of fruit also works for this purpose, but I find fruit often goes to waste in our house. We usually buy two big sweet potatoes (I'm usually the only one in our house that eats them), a bunch of bananas (we don't typically work out in the morning), and keep rice in stock to make sure that we always have that as a backup.
5. Vegetables. Neither of us loves vegetables, but they're a rich source of micronutrients and fiber, and provide a little bit of additional carbs and protein, so we try to eat some during most lunches and dinners. We do better when the vegetables are in season and varied, so once we have our meat and carbs picked out we head to the produce section to pick out the veggies that look most delicious that day. Some of our favorite options are roasted asparagus, brussels sprouts, or broccoli in arugula salad, or steamed bok choy. We also like mushrooms, and carrots and cauliflower on occasion. My thyroid issues give me trouble with cruciferous veggies, and dark leafy greens, so I tend to limit my intake of these categories. In terms of quantity here - we target roughly 1/2 a plate each per meal, or as much as we can convince ourselves to eat.
6. Spices and seasoning. This is where we get flavor variance, and how the ingredients above can taste much like favorite foods of our past, without having all of the same ingredients. We're big fans of coconut aminos to replace soy or teriyaki sauce (since these sauces contain soy and gluten, and teriyaki also contains sugar). We sometimes cave and get marinara sauce, barbecue sauce and ketchup pre-made - but we carefully read the labels to make sure we recognize all the ingredients as food, and to pick the brands with the least added sugar and salt. Spices are credited with unique micronutrient profiles, so we try to use a wide variety of spices "because they're good for us." I intend to research the specific health benefits of spices in the future, but for now this basic mentality suits us. Cumin, chili powder, cinnamon, turmeric, basil, ginger, wasabi, horseradish, and others are flavors we tend to like. We also liberally use lemon and onion to provide flavor.
7. Oils/Fats. Finally, we also stock oils for cooking. We don't eat a lot of nuts and seeds, or intentionally add a lot of oils or fats because we tend to eat a fair amount of meat and eggs (see above), and we haven't managed to convince ourselves to part ways with cream in our coffee. This means we seldom find ourselves low in fat in proportion to the amount of carbs and protein we eat. That said, cooking oils have their place, so we also buy coconut oil and unsalted butter from grass fed cows (we've tried ghee but can't convince ourselves to embrace the flavor). We sometimes use olive oil if we're cooking at low temperature, or as salad dressing. We also go through phases with fresh ground almond butter and with avocado, usually during periods of time in which I'm not trying to cut weight for competitions.
7. Go home and Google. Once we've made our selections, we usually know exactly what we're going to make, but sometimes we end up with experimental items, or cravings for things like lasagna, which we aren't prepared to cook without a recipe. In these cases, we go home and use Google to find recipes for using parsnips or rutabaga, or how to make "Paleo lasagna." Usually, we find recipes that are awesome, or at least sufficiently inspiring that we can get started and improvise the rest of the way (zucchini "zoodles" and spinach do a surprisingly good job replacing noodles in lasagna, for example, and it turns out cheese isn't as critical as you'd think). Google is also helpful when we learn things like rhubarb leaves are poisonous, and yucca is too, unless you cook it thoroughly. We typically save this step for last because we prefer to find a recipe using the food we have, rather than trying to travel all over the city finding the items required for a pre-selected recipe.
In other news, today I made cashew milk for the first time. I've always been reluctant to make nut milks because of the wasted pulp, but it turns out cashew milk is just a cashew smoothie! I followed the instructions for the milk base, but didn't add any sweetener. I can't wait to try the totally plain version in coffee tomorrow, and the version with vanilla and cinnamon is delicious.